PHOENIX – After his initial start of the season Thursday night, pundits began to assess what contribution Madison Bumgarner might have to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Here’s a team in desperate circumstances, coming off a horrendous 2021 and struggling with the bats through the opening week of the 2022 season.
There is no better moment for Bumgarner to step forward and carry the team on his back. For that to happen, the veteran left-hander needs to show more than opening night and indeed, more than in the recent past.
When the Diamondbacks signed Bumgarner to a 5-year, $85 million contract in December 2019, the future appeared locked. The Diamondbacks just traded Zack Greinke to Houston and in dire search of a named figure which could carry the club as well as act as a mentor for younger players.
So much for expectation.
In reality, Bumgardner has not had a winning season in the majors since he went 15-8 with the Giants in 2016. Since, he struggled to keep his win-loss total above .500 and his start last Thursday was another sign that his best days could be clearly behind.
Still, the name recognition alone apparently was enough for Torey Lovullo, the Diamondbacks field manager, to hand Bumgarner the ball on opening day.
“(Bumgarner) earned the opening day start,” Lovullo said prior to the opening game against San Diego. “He came into spring training after the blackout period ready to go. I could tell the way his arm was working early in camp that he did a lot of work leaning into the start of spring training. I’m excited to see what we can go out there. He had a very productive spring training.”
After what happened against San Diego, the kinds of things which encouraged Lovullo were apparently left at Salt River, the Diamondbacks training facility. For only three innings of work and an elevate pitch count of 68, Bumgarner experienced a quick exit. Tossing 42 pitches in a disastrous third inning, in which he walked the bases loaded and proceeded to walk Luke Voit to force in a run, that was enough for the hook.
Afterward, Bumgarner rationalized his walk total (walked four in his three innings of work) by telling reporters he preferred nibbling at the hitters rather than coming directly in, threatened by hitters barreling up and breaking open a tight game.
“I wanted to limit the damage to a team like that,” Bumgarner said after his first effort of the season. “I didn’t want to give into those guys, not today. Just tried to make pitches and keep making pitches even with the bases loaded. I didn’t want to give in. I’d rather make the pitch. In that situation, it wasn’t the worst thing to walk a run in as opposed to giving up hard contact somewhere.”
Despite all the pre-game accolades, Lovullo knew he faced a decision he did not wish to confront. With limited spring training and pitchers not stretched out the way coaches would like, the Arizona manager realized a dilemma of leaving in a pitcher whom Lovullo considered worthy of an opening day start or recognizing an early exit.
“At the start, I thought (Bumgarner) was throwing the ball extremely well,” Lovullo said after the game. “He may have had the most in his tank from the excitement of what was going on during the first couple of innings. Then, he had the 40-pitch inning. It was time for him to come out of the game. We hoped to get four innings out of him but that extra-long inning in the third was enough for me.”
Now, the wait.
Bumgarner’s next start should come this coming Wednesday afternoon in Chase Field against Houston and Lovullo and Brent Strom, the Arizona pitching coach, will likely give Bumgarner around the 70-pitch range. Given his recent history of pitching marginally at best, the second start of the season, while not terribly dramatic nor telling, might sever as a useful window in foreshadowing Bumgarner’s odyssey through the 2022 season.